Schenectady

Foss: In-person pods in Schenectady poor substitute for school

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In-person learning pods.

One of my least favorite things about the pandemic is the jargony new lingo we have for describing a changed world.

Social distancing, flatten the curve, self-quarantine – a year ago, most of us weren’t familiar with these terms.

Now, thanks to the massive disruption to public education caused by COVID-19, we have another piece of lingo to add to the list: in-person learning pods.

I could happily have gone the rest of my life without hearing this term, or learning its meaning, but the Schenectady City School District’s announcement that students soon will have the opportunity to join in-person learning pods makes all of that moot.

So here’s what I can tell you: an in-person learning pod is a small group of students who attend online classes together, under adult supervision, in school buildings.

It is not in any way, shape or form what most of us think of as school, where students receive instruction from teachers who are present in the classroom. It is, instead, a way to bring kids together and give them occasional access to teachers, tutors and other support services.

“We realize this still isn’t school as we remember it,” Interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak informed Schenectady families, in a brief video “We’re planning for a normal return to school in the fall.”

For the district’s 7-12 graders, who haven’t had in-person school since last March, the pods represent an improvement to the status quo, while also being grossly inadequate.

It’s important to remember that Schenectady shut down in-person learning for older students, slashed $28 million from its budget and laid off over 400 staff in response to the possibility of deep cuts to state aid, not any threat posed by COVID-19.

Those deep cuts never materialized, and the tiny amount of state aid that was reduced early in the school year will be restored.

This is good news, but it makes the district’s decision to give their older students in-person learning pods in lieu of school all the more galling, because the money to do so clearly exists.

In fact, the steep cuts the district made to its budget and staff earlier this year means it will wind up with a pretty nice surplus.

What should happen to that money?

I’m not one to complain about school taxes, and I’ve never objected to paying them when they paid for a functioning school system. But that’s not what Schenectady taxpayers received this year.

Should they receive some kind of rebate?

Another question is what should be done for the students who missed out on in-person school and other needed services.

Should the money that would have paid for that schooling stay with the district? Or should some of it go to the students, to help them secure tutors and other services needed to make up for a year of diminished education?

This might sound like a radical idea, but it doesn’t strike me as any more radical than what’s already occurred: unprecedented school closures and layoffs, in response to budget cuts that never happened.

By now, it’s widely understood that for most students online learning is a poor substitute for in-person learning.

Data suggests students – especially low-income youth and children with disabilities – are falling far behind academically, with the losses escalating the longer schools remain closed. In Schenectady, nearly 1,500 students missed 20 or more school days in the first quarter of the year, while another 1,200 students missed more than 10 days of school.

These are troubling and alarming trends, and I’ve been waiting in vain for district higher-ups and school board members to treat it as an emergency that demands quick thinking and creative solutions.

In-person learning pods might be better than nothing.

But for thousands of Schenectady children, better than nothing is not enough.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: News, Opinion, Sara Foss, Schenectady County

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